The key to preparing for a potential crisis at a meeting is to develop strategies for fast, accurate communication, says Nancy L. Elder, CAE director, meetings and expositions, American Society for Microbiology, Washington, D.C. Here are the lessons that she learned from postponing a meeting:

  • Calmness Counts: No matter how you feel, stay calm. If you are calm, you will inspire confidence in your staff, attendees, exhibitors, and meeting partners. Make decisions based on solid research, and stick to them.

  • Contact Lists: Short and Simple. When preparing emergency contact lists for your staff and volunteers, keep the lists short. Elder's contact list for the conference included only 13 contact numbers.

    She listed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's phone number, for instance, but not other public health agencies. Additional pages included instructions and contact information for potential emergencies, as well as security tactics.

    She also included information about where protests would be held, should they occur. Addendums included more detailed information, such as transportation procedures and lists of VIPs who might pose security risks or attract media interest.

  • Prepare Templates: Use several modes of communication. Write templates and scripts for blast e-mails, faxes, phone calls, and to post on your Web site.

  • Download the Database: Be prepared to communicate from your meeting destination. Before leaving for Chicago, Elder and her team sent the attendees' e-mail addresses to ASM's internal IT department. “If something happened while we were in Chicago, all we had to do was tell the IT department to do an e-mail blast using the prepared text. We didn't have to phone our housing/registration vendor in the middle of the night.”

  • Activation Alert: Set up a toll-free number that is ready to activate, if necessary, so that attendees can contact their families immediately. That way you don't have to negotiate with the phone company in the midst of an emergency.

  • Include Your Press Partners: Communicate with your internal media people, Elder says. “They should not operate in a vacuum. Too frequently, we talk about the content of the meeting and make sure that they have access to abstracts, but when working on an emergency plan, they are equally as important.”

  • Don't Skip the Security Meetings: Hold separate security meetings, rather than tacking them on to the pre-con. “It's too big an issue,” says Elder.

In addition to including official security personnel, include your staff and all volunteers who are involved with security.

For instance, Elder included the room monitors in security meetings because their job was to make sure that all attendees left the meeting rooms at the end of each session.